Christie's ed reform scandal: Principals suspended after questioning charter scheme

"Narcissism," "dictatorial" and "totalitarian" tactics by Christie appointee, Newark councilman charges to Salon

Published February 18, 2014 5:30PM (EST)

Chris Christie                           (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)
Chris Christie (Reuters/Andrew Kelly)

Five days before the now-notorious lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered a characteristically acerbic answer to reporters wondering if he’d reappoint Newark’s lightning rod superintendent, Cami Anderson: “Yes we do, and we’re going to renew [her contract] because she’s done a great job, and I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.”

Newark’s school district has been under state control for two decades, and has recently emerged as a top battleground in America’s education reform wars. A $100 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg helped secure the Newark Teachers' Union’s assent to a contract that pays teachers based in part on their students’ test scores – after which the union president was nearly ousted last year. Citing an alleged lack of transparency and consultation, the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board voted unanimously in April to re-name itself the Newark Board of Education and to declare no confidence in Superintendent Anderson. Demanding greater funding and local control, Newark students staged an Election Day school boycott and marched to Christie’s office and Anderson’s house.

Last month, four Newark principals were suspended after attending a forum, organized by Anderson critic and mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, about Anderson’s “One Newark” reform plan. “One Newark” would bring changes to over a third of the city’s schools, including bringing charter schools into district-owned facilities and designating “renew” schools where principals could replace existing staff. While the four principals have been reinstated, one has been reassigned; those four and a fifth suspended principal are now mounting a federal lawsuit against Anderson and the school district, alleging violations of their First and 14th Amendment rights. (A Christie spokesperson referred Salon’s inquiry to the superintendent’s office, which did not respond to a Friday inquiry.)

Interviewed late last week, Baraka -- a council member and school principal whose critique’s of Anderson’s ed reforms have fueled his mayoral bid – denounced the Christie appointee’s approach as “dictatorial,” “totalitarian” and “narcissism.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Recently you said, "A lot of people like to paint me as a radical, but I don't know if I've ever done anything as radical as the thing that [Cami Anderson]'s trying to do.” How so?

To close schools and … start this universal enrollment thing at the same time, without letting parents know what’s going on -- not just on a traditional public school side, but also on a charter side -- not having a solid plan in place, and just, you know, going forward with it without any real thought … is incredibly radical.

Without even having a busing plan, to tell kids: Oh, now you’ve got to go to this school outside of your neighborhood school. How are you going to get there? ... We’re talking about elementary-aged kids … Less than half of the, you know, population of the city own cars. I don’t know how they plan on enacting any of this – and not telling the parents about any of this.

I mean, it just seems … hasty at best. At worst it’s an extremely radical program that is going to, you know, dismantle the stability in public education in this city.

Do you think there’s been a good faith effort to engage with and involve parents in Newark?

No, of course she hasn’t. I mean there’s a story … [where] the plan is to close that school, and parents were notified a day before about a public meeting that she was trying to have at the school to inform them. So that obviously gives the parents no time to begin to initiate or engage in any of that.

She also began putting out the one Newark plan, universal school enrollment, and all of that stuff, without any community meetings whatsoever. So what she did was put the plan together, and then begin to try to inform people about what’s going to happen. Not “what do they think about what’s going to happen,” but just going forward with it -- the closing of high schools …

Even the charter schools: She’s told parents that a couple of schools were going to be closed, Hawthorne Ave. being one of them … [She said] it’s going to be turned over to King’s [Academy]. And then [KIPP Newark executive director] Ryan Hill was in the paper the next day saying King’s Academy doesn’t function that way, we’re not going to take the whole school, we take schools one grade at a time ...

So [instead] she’s giving it to a “renew” school that has not been successful at trying to renew itself. So how is it going to renew another school if it can’t renew itself? As a matter of fact … [at] Hawthorne Ave., scores are higher than that school …

It begs the question: Is this really about school reform, or is it about somebody’s philosophical or ideological stance, that they’re just so, you know, didactic … that they’re going to push this program without any flexibility whatsoever, without any pragmatism, without any common sense?

What do you think that “philosophical or ideological program” is for Cami Anderson?

She wants this whole idea of, you know, a “system of schools” and not a “school system.” She wants to dismantle public education the way it is. She doesn’t think that, in and of itself, it works. She hasn’t really been doing anything for the traditional public schools except trying to “renew” them, and making them opportunities for charters to get in the building.

I don’t think that she believes in public education. I just don’t. Or traditional public education …

She’s trying to, you know, lower the budget, move kids out of public education, put them in other institutions, constantly expand … I don’t think any of it has any really to do with education.

Do you believe that principals were retaliated against for attending the forum you organized?

Absolutely. Well, I don’t think they were retaliated against for attending it – I think they were retaliated against because they spoke out. I mean, there’s another, a central office secretary who was suspended without pay, because she made comments in a bathroom and was overheard … Then they offered her her job back, you know, later -- after all of the press and the lawyers and all this other stuff …

It’s like a scene out of some wild comic book. I don’t know what these people think should happen when you start punishing people for dissent.

Do you support the lawsuit by these principals over their suspensions?

Sure. They have a right to their First Amendment and, you know, freedom of speech. If it’s trampled upon … if we allow that to take place, I mean it’s a slippery slope from there. I think it’s important for people to be able to stand up for their ability to speak out … without fear of losing their job.

Those suspensions – do you think they send a signal to other principals or to teachers?

I think the attempt may have been there, but I don’t think so -- because at the next board meetings, when teachers were asked, or administrators were asked to stand up, they did, in solidarity. I think it may have backfired, that people under this kind of distress feel that they have to stand up or speak out, because they could be next.

The approach that Cami Anderson has taken – how much do you think it reflects Chris Christie?

I think people take on, for the most part, the posture of their leadership. And when Chris Christie gets in public, and says that the people in Newark are not in control of their schools, I am -- when he says stuff like that, then it signals to her that … the person that she’s responsible to is the governor, and not the people of the city.

So Cami Anderson’s No. 1 problem is that she thinks that the Newark public school are apart, clearly apart from the city of Newark … and Newark public schools can go in one direction, and the city goes in the other. Which is absolutely absurd, because the city’s growth depends on Newark public schools’ success, and vice versa. And because the governor makes comments like that, and we’re a state-operated district, it gives her the resolve to say: OK, I can do this without fear of any kind of dissent, or obstacle, in anything I want to do in this town and this city. So I think given that, she feels the freedom to do the things that she wants to do, without having to answer to anyone but someone who agrees with what she’s doing.

Do you believe Newark needs more charter schools?

Well, I think Newark needs good schools, period … This idea of “we have to build charters at the expense of public school” is a ridiculous notion … That’s an argument that people are having about real estate, about space, about money and finances, when on the ground, the thing that improves education is what happens in the classroom – is teacher development, staff development, and extended days and, you know, curriculum …

If there’s something happening in charter schools that’s working, those effective practices need to be duplicated around the city. And vice versa: If there’s something happening in a public school -- traditional – that’s working, that needs to be duplicated ...

I think that if we give parents a real choice -- and we give them a real choice by beginning to improve public education in their community schools -- then they have the option. I mean, these people want to put education on the market, then really put it on the market. So help the public schools improve themselves, without taking away the resources …

Parents had options before … Parents had an option to go to a Catholic school, they had an option to go to a magnet school, they had an option to go to your neighborhood school, or a private school ... And there’s no problem with them having more options. But we can’t say we’re going to give them options, and take one of the options away. So where you tell parents, “You have a choice, but you just don’t have a choice to go to your neighborhood school” … that undermines this whole idea of choice …

If a parent is saying, “I want to go to this neighborhood school,” then they should be given the option to have the neighborhood school. And it’s our obligation as leaders in this community to make sure that the choice that the parent made is a good one. So we do what we can to make sure that the experience of that child -- or those children -- that elects to stay in a neighborhood school, is a viable choice for them.

Cami Anderson, at the Huffington Post … said, “Our message of excellence hasn't been as compelling as messages anchored in fear and intimidation to preserve an indefensible status quo.” How do you respond to --

It’s like some kind of Cinderella story … What that is presupposing is that people weren’t fighting for reform before Cami Anderson showed up. It also presupposes that nobody wants excellence but her … It’s saying something negative about the people in this city, and what we think and we believe.

People in Newark have been fighting for excellent education decades before Cami Anderson even thought about coming across the George Washington Bridge.

The whole fight … in Abbott v. Burke, and the fight for equalized funding in education in New Jersey, was a fight that was anchored in Newark … The fight for wraparound services, the fight for attendance counseling … Fighting for all of the things that we need to address a whole child -- before Cami Anderson came. Before she came, there was a global village school zone. NYU was here, working in communities, with Dr. [Pedro] Noguera, with the “Broader, Bolder” approach that started in the central ward, with my school and a few feeder schools that fed into my school. So there were people working for excellence and reform before she came.

To tell people that you don’t want reform because you don’t want my reform is narcissism. And just to do something to people because they don’t agree with you, leaves narcissism and becomes dictatorial. Totalitarian … ”If you don’t agree with my answer, then you don’t want answers” -- that’s basically what she’s saying. And it’s incorrect … Not only is it incorrect, it’s ahistorical. And it goes to show you she’s not grounded in what’s going on in the city of Newark, or what … has been going on in the city of Newark before she showed up here. And to characterize everybody who’s against her, or against her ideas, as fear-mongerers, or intimidating? … Nobody’s suspending people from their jobs but her. All people are doing is responding to the things that she’s doing.

The Newark Star-Ledger editorial board referred to you as someone who “has no credible reform plan of his own, but has scored points by fanning resentment against Anderson.” What do you make of that criticism?

I would ask the editorial board, have they even investigated Cami Anderson’s plan … And they have not investigated anybody else’s plan. So their statements are without merit …

I sat with [editorial page editor] Tom Moran and expressed to him my same sentiment: That just because folks don’t agree with your kind of reform, doesn’t mean we don’t want reform. And we had reform before she came … that was grounded in research, that was grounded in national best practices … He completely disregarded that. So did she …

He feels like -- or the editorial board feels like -- she’s being attacked without warrant. That’s completely untrue … They … run the Star Ledger and we don’t. But the community’s opinion matters as well.

The donation that Mark Zuckerberg made in Newark, which would appear to have directly caused this teachers’ union contract under which teachers will be paid in part based on … students’ test scores – is that good or bad for Newark schools?

Well, you have to look at it this way. First, there’s no research, No. 1, which proves or says that … giving them that kind of bonuses will improve instruction …

How would you spend the money: Would you spend it fighting for a contract to give teachers merit pay? Or would you use it to help extend the school day? Or would you use it to bring quality staff development to teachers, teacher quality, or help change the culture of buildings? …

You win political points by pushing an agenda that’s a national agenda, and saying in New Jersey, in one of the most difficult, well-organized, union states -- teachers' unions -- you got to push this teacher incentive pay. But at the end of the day, what did it do materially and substantially to change the quality of education that’s taking place in the classrooms every single day? It’s not measurable, there’s no effect -- you can argue that it really had minimal effects. So then you have to say, was the money spent wisely?

How do you assess Cory Booker’s record as mayor of Newark?

To me, Cory Booker is the senator now. So people are still hanging onto Cory Booker …

So Cory came to Newark, he turned on the lights, opened up the stage, he filled the theater with people … he brought a lot of attention to Newark.

Now it's time for us to do the work that we’re supposed to do. Right? Now it’s time for us to collectively come together and improve what’s happening in our city every single day. We have real issues that we have to deal with, you know. And people are still … talking about Cory Booker, and we’re months away from a new mayor. So it’s time for us to move on.

By Josh Eidelson

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Cami Anderson Charter Schools Chris Christie Ed Reform Educaton Kipp New Jersey Ras Baraka